This Premier League season for Liverpool has been a success on an unexpected scale. Brendan Rodgers’ tactical nous when deploying varying formations depending on the opponent has been a vital component. However, without the growth of certain members of the squad, the quantity and regularity of fantastic results would not have been achieved.
1. Jon Flanagan first appeared on the scene under Kenny Dalglish towards the end of 2010-11 season. Liverpool had suffered injuries to first team full-backs Johnson and Kelly, and with nothing of any great magnitude left to fight for, Dalglish saw it as a perfect opportunity to throw him in at the deep end. He certainly did this, with his first 2 appearances being the full 90 mins against Manchester City and Arsenal.
For the remaining fixtures that season, he experienced a relatively extended run in the side. However, appearances became few and far between for the next 2 seasons as he became somewhat left out in the cold. These years spanned the end of Dalglish’s reign and the beginning of Rodgers’, and so with consecutive managers leaving him out, many wondered if it would ever work out for him at Liverpool. Flanagan did still have youth on his side, but his contract was running out, leaving the full-back unsure if he would ever get the chance to impress again.
Following a serious injury to José Enrique and the far from impressive form of loanee Aly Cissohko, the young Englishman was thrown into first team action against Arsenal at the Emirates. His performance was one of the few plus points to be drawn from a 2-0 defeat. He then followed it up with a highly impressive showing in the 3-3 at Goodison Park. So much had been gained from his peers that captain Steven Gerrard revealed afterwards that Flanagan was given a standing ovation upon entering the dressing room after the match.
He has never looked back since. Towering performances in the second Merseyside derby, the 3-0 defeat of arch rivals Manchester Utd at Old Trafford, and in the thrashings of the North London duo Spurs and Arsenal are of note. Truthfully, it has to be said that since his most recent emergence, he hasn’t had a bad game. His game intelligence and skill on the ball has come on leaps and bounds to partner his commitment and passion which have never been in question. While comparisons made in the media to the legendary Brazilian Cafu are somewhat premature, if his progression continues at the same rate then he has to be considered as a long term solution at right back for England. It has reached the stage now that serious questions would be raised if he was left out of Liverpool’s starting eleven, and who could possibly have predicted that in August.
2. Martin Skrtel was out in the wilderness for large portions of last season. Although he did start the campaign well and truly in the first team picture, he exhibited the odd lapse in concentration which lost Liverpool vital points. For example, he launched a misplaced back-pass to Pepe Reina at home against City which Carlos Tevez pounced on to rescue a draw. There were even times where he was physically dominated such as in the FA Cup shock exit at Oldham Athletic. Matt Smith gave him an incredibly tough afternoon and as the experienced centre-half, Skrtel took a great deal of flak for the loss.
He eventually wore down Brendan Rodgers’ patience so much that he was replaced by Jamie Carragher for the second half of the season. This was despite the fact that it was widely known that Carragher would retire at the end of the season. It was the general consensus that he would leave Liverpool during the summer, especially with interest from Rafa Benitez’s Napoli. Rafa was after all the man who brought the Slovakian to Anfield in the first place.
However no deal materialised and Skrtel started the 13/14 Barclays Premier League on the bench again. Kolo Touré; Carragher’s replacement, played instead, leaving Skrtel to be seen as the 4th choice central defender at the club. Big money signing Mamadou Sakho would surely be ahead of him in the pecking order, with the club expecting big things from him in the future. But as a consequence of injury and loss of form for other defenders, Rodgers was forced to bring Martin Skrtel back into the fold.
To his great credit, he has since gone on to make himself un-droppable. Even with the return to fitness of others, Skrtel has seen off all challengers. It is now a question of who will partner Skrtel in the centre of defence rather than who will replace him. He has taken his defensive prowess in the air; which has proved so vital in defending set-plays, and transferred it up the pitch. Seven goals from a defender is the best in the league, and it even includes a brace in the rout of Arsenal.
He was receiving criticism, and rightly I must add, for his ‘agricultural’ approach to defending set-plays. He was the perpetrator of so much shirt grabbing; and while he is certainly not the only culprit, a great deal of lime light was placed on him because of how blatant it was. Even that has improved in recent weeks, which has added security to Liverpool’s back line. The towering Slovakian has found the perfect balance between the raw aggression of an MMA fighter and the composure of Alistair Cook in his prime. He is never out-muscled, never out-fought, but most impressively now, never out-thought. Along with Flanagan, he has become a must start in Liverpool’s defence.
3. Jordan Henderson came with the pressure of a £21 million price tag weighing very heavily around his neck. This premium existed because he was young and English, making his talent that much more valuable with the impending introduction of Premier League home-grown laws. He was not initially employed in the correct position by Kenny Dalglish, meaning the Reds could not take advantage of his tremendous energy. Brendan Rodgers’ improved understanding of his key attributes and faith in his ability has led to a dramatic change in fortunes for the former Sunderland man.
A recent statistic has revealed that Henderson has played 99.2% of Liverpool’s total Premier League minutes this season. This is a stunning figure and goes a long way to show the high regard he is currently held in at Anfield. He has the legs to provide the link between defence, all the way through midfield and even lending a hand in attack. Showing the same dynamism of a younger Gerrard is a reassuring start for the legend’s possible long-term replacement, but as of yet, he has not matched Gerrard’s quality on the ball. He also possesses the stamina to keep going at this incessant pace for the full 90 minutes when others are tiring. Lung-busting breaks from midfield have often gone unnoticed but have made important contribution to goals on the counter-attack as defenders have been drawn away, allowing more space for others to do their best work.
Meanwhile, he has added goal scoring and assists to his game; achieving 4 and 7 respectively to date. The few times he has been rested, Liverpool have struggled to inject the right amount of pace into the game and their pressing tactics have been far less successful. Quite a serious concern for the Kop is how badly he will be missed for the next 3 games after picking up a straight red card in the victory against Man City.
4. Raheem Sterling became the second youngest ever player to score a league goal in the red of Liverpool at the beginning of last season after hitting the winner in a 1-0 victory over Reading in October. While the occasional performance that year was impressive, they were all too infrequent. Demonstrating the typical traits of a youngster and a wide-man generally, inconsistency was rife in his play style. His ball skills were relatively good, but relied almost entirely on his blistering pace.
This season however, he has been a much more regular fixture in the first team and has shown a greater level of maturity which is only increasing game on game. He has featured in 31 of the 34 Premier League games this campaign and has chipped in with 7 goals; a good return for a player who has previously had his end product questioned. These have included the vital first against Man City on Sunday; demonstrating the composure of a much more experienced professional, and helping to cement the 5-1 victory over Arsenal with a brace. His talent; previously raw and unpolished but absolutely clear for all to see, has been honed to become a crucial member of the Liverpool playing squad.
This year, he has been employed on either flank as part of a front three, as the tip of the diamond in a 4-1-2-1-2, and even as an emergency right wing-back at earlier stages of the campaign. Traits that he now regularly displays are marvellous game intelligence, maturity, technical ability, quick feet, vision, an eye for a goal, impressive strength for such a slight figure, and uncontainable acceleration. The progress of the QPR youth product has been so dramatic this season that if I was in Roy Hodgson’s shoes, he would be a serious contender for a starting berth against Italy in the World Cup, never mind the squad itself.
5. Luis Suarez has always been known to have an outstanding ability to beat a defender and an eye for the spectacular goal, but he has added a seriously prolific edge to his game this season. Without losing any of his other facets, he has also scored plenty of ‘ugly’ goals in addition to the exquisite volleys and free-kicks we have seen previously. However, so much has been said about his footballing performances that I do not wish to dwell on this.
His direct effect on matches on the pitch itself is not the only way he has grown this season. As I discussed in a previous article called Luis Suarez: The Path to Redemption, it was his character traits and ‘extra-curricular’ habits which threatened to derail his career. The marked improvement has only been able to be observed so vividly because of a change in attitude and the impression he now gives out. The Uruguayan is smiling much more, not diving, not producing stupid moments leading to controversy, giving extended interviews in English, and acting very graciously such as when he dedicated the shared Player of the Month award to Steven Gerrard, saying he deserved it more.
None of these things would have been seen from the Luis Suarez of previous campaigns, that is for sure. He has come out of his shell, and allowed him to be more likeable in the process. This side of character improvement cannot be undervalued as a contribution to the overall player he has now become.
Why Jose Mourinho’s treatment of Luke Shaw has crossed the line
The Portuguese manager has been highly critical of Luke Shaw this season.
The fractious relationship between Jose Mourinho and Luke Shaw plumbed new depths when the left-back was substituted at half-time in Manchester United’s FA Cup victory over Brighton & Hove Albion. The 22-year-old had been handed a rare opportunity to impress at Old Trafford but lasted only 45 minutes.
Speaking about Shaw in his post-match interview, Mourinho said: “Luke, in the first half, every time they came in his corridor, the cross came in and a dangerous situation was coming. I was not happy with his performance.”
The differences between the pair now appear to be irreconcilable. Shaw, who was signed by Louis van Gaal in the summer of 2014, has been used sparingly by Mourinho. The former Southampton starlet has made just 18 Premier League appearances under the Portuguese in a career that has been blighted by injuries.
Being substituted at half-time is almost as embarrassing as it gets for a player and Shaw’s mood will not have improved after being publicly criticised by his manager. It’s certainly not the first time Mourinho has chosen to talk candidly to the media about his concerns with the 22-year-old.
Some players require an arm around the shoulder to perform at their peak, while for others it takes a kick up the backside. Mourinho, opting for the latter, does nothing without reason and has clearly tried to spark a reaction from Shaw, without success.
From being one of English football’s brightest prospects after making his World Cup debut aged just 18, Shaw, who has seven England caps to his name, is in danger of not fulfilling the potential that convinced United to spend what was then a world-record fee for a teenager.
Mourinho’s tactic of singling out individuals who have not met his standards is in stark contrast to Sir Alex Ferguson, who never blamed his players in public. It has divided opinion among pundits, with Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier claiming the United manager is ‘destroying’ Shaw.
Mourinho is an expert at using smokescreens to distract from his side’s unconvincing performances. And this latest controversy has moved the narrative on from United’s shock Champions League exit at the hands of Sevilla.
Tough love is one thing, but the sustained, public attack on Shaw is unacceptable. If Mourinho genuinely believes he is not good enough to represent United, then fair enough. But to continually vilify the youngster’s performances is a step too far and one that could irreparably damage Shaw’s confidence.
This is not to say that Shaw is a completely innocent bystander. Mourinho’s predecessor, Louis van Gaal, also questioned his desire and general conditioning when he joined United four years ago. Indeed, the Dutchman signed Shaw up to a tailored exercise regime in an effort to improve his fitness.
But while van Gaal’s treatment had the desired effect, Mourinho’s has done the opposite. Being publicly humiliated on a routine basis does neither party any favours.
In all likelihood, Shaw’s disappointing United career will come to an end this summer. A fresh start away from the toxicity under Mourinho is exactly what he needs.
Keanan Bennetts has perfect opportunity to impress Mauricio Pochettino this week
The left-sided star has a chance to impress in first-team training during the international break.
With the international week in full flow, plenty of teams in the Premier League have seen their squads diminished by call-ups to national teams.
Tottenham Hotspur are one such side. Nonetheless, with most of the first-team squad away with their respective nations, work continues at Hotspur Way.
In order for Spurs to have a full complement in training, plenty of young talent needs to be pulled in to the ranks.
Mauricio Pochettino will, therefore,e get a chance to see some of his young players training with regular first-team players such as Fernando Llorente, Erik Lamela and Lucas Moura.
One player who will be training with the first-team this week is talented wide-man Keanan Bennetts, according to London Live.
The 19-year-old left-winger has been catching the eye for the club’s youth team in recent weeks, making the news after scoring a fantastic goal for the under-19s against Monaco in the UEFA Youth League last month.
Bennetts has also been attracting interest for his positional dexterity. The wide-man has played at left-back in recent times and it could be that is his future best position.
This week he will be up against some excellent players such as Lamela and Moura, who did not receive selection to the Argentina and Brazil national teams, respectively.
If he can prove himself with this calibre of player, Pochettino will have to take notice.
It is coming to a point in his Tottenham career when Bennetts has to make such an impact. The teenager is out of contract at Spurs in the summer and needs to ensure he is kept on for at least one more season.
Tottenham fans who follow the youth teams are certain he is deserving of such a chance. If he can show Pochettino what he is capable of this week, then a new deal will surely be in the pipeline for the talented wide-man.
Despite improvement, Everton should not rekindle Thomas Vermaelen interest
The Belgian defender has been in better form for Barcelona this season.
Rumours have emerged today suggesting Everton could be back in for Belgian defender Thomas Vermaelen.
Catalan newspaper Sport has reported that the 32-year-old could be offered a new deal by Barcelona, with a team from the Premier League interested in signing him.
Sport Witness has openly hypothesised that Everton could be that team. Whilst there is no confirmation or substantiated report that is the case, the boot certainly fits.
Last summer Everton tried to sign Vermaelen.
As reported by the Liverpool Echo, at the time Barcelona vetoed a loan move to Everton as they felt the defender could be a useful asset.
The Belgian certainly has. After struggling with injuries and form throughout most of his Barcelona tenure the former Arsenal man has enjoyed a good season.
The 32-year-old has been a genuine asset to the Catalans, despite still being used sparingly, and such form has even seen him win back a place in Roberto Martinez’s national selection for Belgium.
If it is Everton interested in Vermaelen it is easy to see why. Centre-back has been a major problem for the club this season.
However, Vermaelen, or a player of his ilk, is not the answer to the Toffees’ woes.
The Belgian is obviously a talented player with plenty of experience, but Everton need to freshen up their back-line.
Ashley Williams and Phil Jagielka’s age has shown in recent months.
The pair have been, at the best, inconsistent for the past 18 months and Everton need fresh young talent in the heart of defence if they are to succeed.
Vermaelen is not only 32 but also immensely injury prone. Everton need reliable figures to plug their leaky defences and the Belgian can simply not be relied upon.
Whilst on paper it seems a good deal, and one Everton could certainly turn to their benefit.
The truth is supporters of the Goodison Park outfit will hope they are not the club reportedly keen on bringing Vermaelen back to the Premier League.
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